Are you someone who likes to make New Year’s resolutions? I am. At least, I think I am.
I get excited by the prospect of a fresh start, and an opportunity to reinvent myself as a new and improved version.
But then the disappointment kicks in. You know, those moments when I am unable to stick to my new intentions, when the old doubts and behaviours take over and I return to my old comfortable ways.
So, maybe on balance, I should see the whole process negatively instead?
But I don’t.
Instead, I choose to see my potential for change through the lens of neuroscience.
Our brains are handling an immense amount of information each second, and in order to do this effectively they complete most tasks below the threshold of consciousness. That means that I don’t know how it decides to exert just the right amount of pressure when picking up my mug of tea, or how it helps me to stay upright when I am walking on icy pavements.
It also means I am going to find it hard to do dry January. Many of the influences of my decision to have an alcoholic drink are subconscious. Many of them are also more emotional in nature than they are rational. So, trying to overcome them with rational arguments is like trying to stop a fire with a wet wipe – it may have an effect for a start, but soon it will be overwhelmed and actually become part of the problem.
So what can we do?
One thing which can drastically change our success rates, is to better understand the role of habits and their function within the brain. Essentially, habits are efficient – they allow us to conduct an array of complicated and repeated tasks, without requiring full attention, decision-making or cognitive capacity. Just think how hard it would be to get through the day if we had to decide which leg to dry first when we get out of the shower, how to hold a knife and fork or how to drive the car on our journey home from work. Habits do much of the work for us.
Therefore, when we are looking to change our habits, or create new habits, we need to be able to move our brain from this automatic and efficient mode, to one which is more intentional and where our actions align with our newly created goals.
Neuroscience research into this field has discovered that although these two mechanisms within the brain both involve connections between the same key areas (the cortex and the striatum), they each utilise different neural pathways and loops.
The next step is for us to study what happens when we attempt to ‘switch’ from the habit pathway, onto the more goal-focused one. This is challenging to recreate in the lab, but some experiments appear to be getting close to finding answers using animals and computer modelling.
In the meantime…
But how does this help us now? Here? Today? When I am tempted to return to old habits, or worse, when I return to old habits without really noticing?
In order to enhance the goal-focused pathway, we need to strengthen it. We need to use it often and being to make the newly formed connections really strong. We can do this in reality, or just through visualising us working on our goals in intentional, powerful and detailed ways. Do you see now why coaches are always banging on about making your goals really tangible and visualising them often? Whatever you do, you need to take the focus AWAY from the old habit – don’t think about what you have given up or stopped, think about what you have chosen to do and are taking up instead.
And if you want to help me demonstrate the power of the words we use when crafting goals, please do take part in my research question on this topic. You can do that here.
Or not. I mean, the choice is yours. Unless of course you are just a creature of habit…